Bill Long 12/4/05
What to Avoid and What to Enjoy
The second stanza is as follows:
"Avoid loud and aggressive persons;
They are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others
You may become vain and bitter;
For always there will be greater
and lesser persons than yourself."
1. After urging us to listen to others, to speak our truth quietly, and to learn to live in silence, we are told to avoid certain types of people: the "loud and aggressive." These types are "vexations" to the spirit. Though the Desiderata was only written in 1927, its use of vexation here (and imaginings later) is in perfect 17th century style. A vexation, according to the OED is "The action of troubling or harassing by aggression or interference." The note to the word says that it was "common in the 16 century, now rare." The King James Version of the Bible (1611) was fond of the word "vexation." Note two instances where "vexation" was used in 1611, which the New Revised Standard Version has changed.
Deut. 28:20, "The Lord shall send upon thee cursing, vexation....
Deut. 28:20, "The Lord will send up on you disaster, panic....
Ecclesiastes 4:6, "Better is a handful with quietness, than both the hands full with travail and vexation of spirit."
Ecclesiastes 4:6, "Better is a handful with quiet than two handfuls with toil, and a chasing after wind."
I like to juxtapose "vexation of spirit" and "chasing after wind." They communicate different things, even though they accurately translate the same Hebrew words.
But don't miss what the text is saying. It urges avoidance of the loud and insistent. We have a proverb in American English which says that the squeaky wheel gets the oil. But the Desiderata would not have it be so.
2. Then we turn to a sore subject, of comparisons. We live by comparisons between ourselves and others. We strive to "keep up with the Joneses." The TV program "60 Minutes" had a segment a few weeks ago about monstrously-huge houses that are now being built all over America. Certainly those who build such houses have been bit by the "comparison" bug. They must think that they are making themselves quite grand by building such houses.
The biggest selling issues of the US News & World Report are those where comparisons of institutions are given. We lap up comparative data like hikers drink water after a walk through the desert. Note that the text doesn't tell us not to compare ourselves to others; perhaps it realizes the vanity of that kind of exhortation. Rather it tells us that if we do so, we may become "vain and bitter"--vain towards those below and bitter towards those above. Somehow we deceive ourselves into thinking that we can be the best, the top, the "No. 1" at something, but even if we attain that ranking by some authority in the field, the designation is evanescent. We become "former # 1" much longer than we become "# 1."
"Enjoy your achievements
As well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career,
However humble; it is a real possession
In the changing fortunes of time."
1. I like the spirit of this stanza. It is so world and ambition-affirming, coming just after it has pointed out the danger of comparisons with others. Achievements are to be enjoyed. Plans, too, are to be savored. What is the difference between a "plan" here and an "imagining" below ("But do not distress yourself with imaginings")? The author doesn't tell us, but it must have to do with the difference between what we might call "sober" and "wild" ambitions. But we don't always know the difference. The best thing to do is to make plans and not to fret about them, but to "enjoy" them. If, as the Scriptures say, "all things are yours," including the "present" and "the future" (I Cor. 3:21-22), then all things are to be enjoyed right here and now.
2. Among the things to be enjoyed and embraced is one's career, however humble. At times we feel that all our efforts over the years have been one coruscating failure after another, one false start after another, a series of unredeemed failures. And who is to say whether there will be a breakthrough on the 100th try or even the 1000th? But the advice given here is to embrace and keep interested in our work. It is a "real possession" for us in the vagaries of time. A person's work is a segment of the self, a solemn signature of the soul, a true fragment of a life faithfully lived. As one prepares to die, what is left behind? Possibly a family, children and grandchildren. Friends and colleagues who worked with you and understood what you were trying to do. But, in addition, a career, a possession to amplify and supplement the other gifts of life.
But the mention of career shifts the focus to how we are to conduct our affairs. The next essay begins there.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long